American Idol returned Sunday to offer another “chance to own a piece of the American dream,” complete with Norman Rockwellian portraits of earnest small-town singers standing hopefully in sunlit cornfields (and an effective use of “Private Idaho” by American treasures the B-52’s during the Boise audition scenes). After 17 years, it’s still the feel-good show on network television. But one contestant’s timely and tragic tale turned Sunday’s premiere temporarily dark. Twenty-five-year-old Nebraska singer-songwriter Nick Townsend moved all three judges — even the usually jocular Luke Bryan — to tears with his story of suicide and survival.
Nick heartbreakingly revealed that his beloved older brother took his life in January 2018 while serving in the military. (“It’s actually the first time I’ve talked about this,” Nick told Idol producers Sunday.) Understandably devastated, Nick tried to escape the pain by accepting a job in Japan — but then, while he was overseas, his little brother Matthew also died of suicide. Nick is still racked with guilt, confessing to Idol producers that going to Japan is his life’s biggest regret. “It made me feel selfish, because I left my little brother … all I can think about is he needed me and I left him,” he sobbed. But Nick has soldiered on. “There have definitely been times that I’ve just wanted to give up, but I know my brothers would want me to keep pursuing my dream and be really proud that I’m here.”
Luke stayed stoic during Nick’s plaintive cover of James Bay’s “Let It Go” — which showcased what judge Lionel Richie called a “natural cry” vocal quality. But it was obvious that Luke had connected to this story, which had some parallels to his own. “I haven’t brought this up on this show because I haven’t had to, but I’ve lost both my siblings,” he told Nick. When Luke was 19, his older brother Chris died in a car accident just days before Luke had planned to Nashville to pursue his own musical dreams, and Luke put his career on hold — something Nick had seriously considered — for years as a result. “I just applaud you for keeping a positive attitude and continuing to fight, and for trying to be a light for your parents too,” Luke told Nick.
When Nick received his golden ticket and his sister and parents rushed into the audition room to congratulate him, that’s when Luke really seemed on the verge of tears. After a year of grieving, the Townsends finally had reason to celebrate. “It’s all right to cry good tears,” Luke told them, joining in the group hug. Once the Townsends left, Luke became contemplative, sitting by himself at the far end of the judging table, his eyes misting over, as the screen faded to a display of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255. It was an intense, but classic, American Idol moment.
— Luke Bryan (@LukeBryanOnline) March 4, 2019
However, there were funny moments Sunday too, like when Vokillz — the premiere’s token novelty contestant, Masked Singer of sorts, and the inventor of a new musical genre he called “mystic death trap metal” — scared the hell out of the panel with his Cookie Monster growl, original “song” titled “American Creature,” and a creepy gift that he left like an animal-sacrifice altar-offering on the judges’ table. (Relax. It was just a necklace — not a dead rat, as Katy Perry had feared.) Katy actually said yes to Vokillz (“because I don’t want him to murder me!”), and while Luke and Lionel said no, Vokillz did make it into an Idol commercial that aired during the Oscars, so he did go “through to Hollywood” in a way.
Katy may not have accepted Vokillz’s necklace, but I do have to take a moment, before I get to the rest of the successful auditions, to praise her sartorial excellence on the Season 17 premiere. Laty rocked some crazy-cool outfits that made Vokillz’s rubber skull mask and red pleather trenchcoat seem like beige purchases from an Ann Taylor Loft outlet. The iridescent pink taffy-wrapper dress, the acid-green one-armed leopard-print tunic paired with matching neon eyeliner and silver superheroine boots, the Agent 99 two-tone mod onesie with ostrich trim, the S&M PVC spy coat, the many pairs of shoulder-grazing geometric earrings, that vintage T-shirt tribute to Lionel Richie … the woman looked like a damn 3D Patrick Nagel painting, and I was here for it. Her stylist seriously needs to win a Best Costuming Emmy.
Walker Burroughs, 20: “Love Like This”
The lovable ginger nerd with the smooth ‘70s soft-rock vibe banged out a Ben Rector ballad on the piano (followed by an impromptu performance of Lionel’s “Hello”) that had the judges comparing him compared Ben Folds, Billy Joel, and Randy Newman — and even calling him “top 10 material.” Walker definitely had me at “Hello.”
Johanna Jones, 23: “I’m Not the Only One”
This all-American girl is a rom-com manic pixie dreamgirl, apparently living off potato chips and In-N-Out burgers but looking like she stepped out of a Pantene commercial. Ah, those twentysomething metabolisms! I was more entertained by Johanna’s potato chip-eating contest with Katy, which I believe Katy won (fun fact: potato chips are good for warming up the vocal cords, according to Katy and Johanna) than by her Sam Smith cover, which suffered from an affected and overthought delivery. But she was likable and funny, so she scored three yeses. Now let the chips fall where they may! (Sorry.)
Khalifa “Kai the Singer” Wilson, 19: “Thinking Out Loud”/“My Girl”
Kai’s first acoustic guitar number was awkward and arrhythmic, but that was obviously due to nerves. Thankfully, the perceptive judges gave her another shot, and while Kai’s guitar-free Temptations song was still shaky and occasionally shrill, she had some nice moments. With her sad backstory of homelessness and poverty, Khalifa is was someone I want to root for, and I think America will feel the same. I hope she can tap into her potential in Hollywood.
Tyler Mitchell, 26: “Whenever You Come Around”
A classic Idol archetype — a hunky small-town oil worker blinded by the bright lights of the big city during his NYC audition trip — Tyler sounded like a total pro when he opened his mouth. I was getting Caleb Lee Hutchinson flashbacks. Luke couldn’t resist harmonizing with Tyler, which was a very good sign. “Holy crap,” gasped Katy. “Literally, a star is born!”
Margie Mays, 25: “Lawrence”
This spazzy Idol stan is either the “greatest person ever,” which was Katy’s assessment, or the most annoying person ever. Or maybe both! I probably could only deal with Margie in small doses (she made last year’s lovable weirdo Catie Turner seem subdued), but I could not stop laughing or staring when she was onscreen. She belched constantly, she made bird noises, she forgot her own name, and she was advised to never drink coffee again, but she made all that nervous energy work for her. I don’t know if she’s the next American Idol, but she needs her own comedy special or YouTube channel.
Myra Tran, 19: “One Night Only”
Myra moved to the U.S. from Vietnam only a year ago to follow her American dream, and I think that dream is going to come true. Her spectacularly soulful vocals were at a positively Whitney/Mariah/Céline level. How did such a huge, mature voice emanate from such a tiny body? The judges, once they got over their shock, gave her a standing ovation, with Luke telling her, “You’re up here with the Kelly Clarksons of the world.” I definitely could see Myra winning this thing.
Uché, 24: “Ain’t No Other Man”/“God Is Able”
I can already tell this openly queer personality-plus with roots in the church (“as a bi guy, I know God loves me, and I want everyone to know”), whose influences are Prince, Rick James, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Bobby Brown (“they got that stank”), will be one of my favorites this season. His vocals on his first song weren’t exactly Xtina-esque, but he was a performer. He sold it, and I was buying. When he did his second gospel number, he was better vocally, so now his challenge will be to figure out how to marry his showmanship, which Katy described as “spicy,” with proper breath control.
Laci Kaye Booth, 23: “Mama Tried”
A second-generation country singer since age 3, Laci had a gentle, feathery Americana voice with a natural, sexy rasp. I think she will be one to watch, someone who will evolve and thrive as the competition progresses. (It’s probably a good omen that the was the first singer shown in that aforementioned Idol commercial.) Katy called Laci a “diamond in the rough” and “different-sounding from everyone else,” and Luke told her, “You are very, very close to being really world-class.”
Nick Rogers, 17: “Mine”
This hip-hop soulboy was a pretty capable rapper, and this show could use some more hip-hop (i.e., the most popular musical genre in America right now). He also is obvious heartthrob material. But his serenading of Katy was a little weird. “I could be your mother,” the 34-year-old judge reminded him.
Tiffanne Le May, 20: “The Best Part”
His Lionel fangirl scored points right away with at least one of the judges by entering the audition room carrying a vintage vinyl Richie LP. (“I knew there was something about you when you first walked in!” Lionel quipped.) But it was her H.E.R. cover that impressed the entire panel. She showcased a warm, robust tone, and there was just a natural, irresistible glow about her. Tiffanne’s audition was one of the best parts of Sunday’s premiere.
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